With Zimbabwe's political turmoil and Burma's humanitarian woes grabbing most of the headlines on Africa and Asia lately, it might be easy to forget about another crisis that threatens millions of people on both continents: HIV/AIDS. In its recently released annual report, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Foundation (IRFC) recommended that the epidemic be classified a "disaster" in certain Asian and African countries, breaking with its usual focus on natural catastrophes like cyclones. The IRFC backed up its argument on HIV/AIDS with some scary statistics (PDF of the report):
- Some 2.1 million people died of AIDS in 2007
- At least one adult in ten is living with HIV in nations that include Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe
- Around 15 million children are currently orphaned as the result of AIDS
Perhaps the most chilling figure is this one: 25 million. That's how many people are estimated to have died of AIDS worldwide since 1981. In comparison, the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia in 2004 killed around 232,000 people.
Like natural disasters, AIDS can be a comprehensive threat, stressing healthcare systems and fueling poverty. AIDS can also worsen the impact of environmental catastrophes. Nine major natural disasters of 2007 occured in countries with generalized AIDS epidemics, according to the IRFC, meaning that people with HIV/AIDS had to contend with interrupted care. With AIDS treatment often requiring daily drug cocktails, even a minor interruption in drug availability poses major health risks.
So what can the world do to confront the epidemic? Throwing money at the problem won't make it go away. Billions have already been spent on general AIDS education and awareness programs worldwide, but the number of people living with AIDS keeps increasing in several areas, including Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and even parts of Western Europe. The IRFC says that the world won't make major strides against the disease until governments begin targeting their at-risk populations -- including sex-workers and intravenous drug users -- for prevention and treatment. Until this is done, AIDS will continue to wreak havoc, far worse than any single tsunami or earthquake could.
This cork-filled life preserver from the Titanic, which sunk in 1912, will be sold at auction house Christie's annual ocean liner sale in New York next Wednesday. The life preserver, one of only six known to exist, had been kept by a family in Nova Scotia since it was found -- allegedly by a farmer at the Halifax shoreline soon after the tragedy. Christie's expects it to go for 30,000 to 40,000 pounds ($59,000 to $79,000); the auction house sold another one last year in London for 61,000 pounds ($120,000).
If a disaster the magnitude of the quake that hit China's Sichuan province last month had taken place in the United States, (think 50 Hurricane Katrinas) you can bet that the nation would still be reeling, many public services would not yet have resumed, and certainly some schools would still be closed. But nearly a month after the devastating earthquake hit, millions of Chinese students, many of whom have lost homes or loved ones, are returning to normalcy as they sit for the most important exam of their lives.
Today and tomorrow, an estimated 11 million secondary school students will vie for 6 million Chinese university spots: tough odds that put students and their families on edge. Slate.com's Manuela Zonensein puts the exams in perspective this way:
It is China's SAT—if the SAT lasted two days, covered everything learned since kindergarten, and had the power to determine one's entire professional trajectory."
The pressure is so great that many children study up to 12 hours a day, parents and children report adverse effects on their health due to anxiety, and large numbers of family members flock to temples, praying to Buddha and Confucius for their child's success. When prayer doesn't seem to cut it, some students even have resorted to high-tech cheating schemes.
Life, of course, isn't completely back to normal yet. Students in the hardest-hit areas will have an extra month before they, too, must take the test of their lives. And as a safety precaution, bays of tents have been constructed outside testing centers in case a large aftershock should disrupt the students' uneasy calm.
Sharon Stone is in big trouble with China.
Speaking last week at the Cannes film festival, the American actress made the following ill-advised remark to a Hong Kong TV station:
And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma -- when you're not nice -- that the bad things happen to you?
As you might imagine, Stone's riff wasn't viewed too kindly by Chinese netizens, who have added her to their growing pantheon of personae non grata and are organizing a boycott of Stone-related products. Theaters are dropping her movies, department stores are taking down her image, and cosmetics brand Christian Dior has been scrambling to distance itself from the actress, who since 2005 has been the face of one of its skin products. I think it's fair to say Stone is discovering that karma can be a real b*tch sometimes.
You can see the video here:
The Olympic torch reached Shanghai today where the relay was accompanied by a moment of silence observed by over 80,000 people for victims of the Sichuan earthquake. Among those carrying the flame were emergency services workers who had participated in the rescue effort. Shanghai's mayor Han Zheng noted the new symbolism of the relay:
"When torchbearers pass the flame, it's not just the Olympic spirit they are passing, but also the confidence and courage with which the people of Shanghai join hands with the victims of the quake to rebuild their beautiful homelands."
Last month, the torch relay was overwhelmingly viewed as a fiasco, marred by protests until organizers were actually hiding the flame from onlookers. Now, of course, the symbolism has changed significantly. What was once a massive moving target for international protests over China's human rights crimes, is now being portrayed (Western media included) as a symbol of China's resilience in the face of catastrophe.
The international sympathy for China brought on by the earthquake may fade by the time the Olympics start, (It's not as if Tibet or Darfur have suddenly disappeared.) but I would still expect to see China invoking the tragedy quite a bit during the games. Supporting the earthquake recovery may even give "cover" to international leaders who want to attend the games but were afraid of appearing to condone China's policies.
Until two weeks ago, the mounting protests made it look like China's international coming-out party was sure to be an embarassing debacle. China's new, more sympathetic narrative may just save the Beijing games from disaster.
|Wednesday, May 21, 2008||Thursday, May 22, 2008|
The Xinhua news agency Web site is back to normal after a subtle change you may have missed if you don't check it every day. The shift comes on the heels of China's official three day mourning period to remember the victims of last week's earthquake. In the real world, karaoke bars were closed, HBO service was suspended, and newspapers used black ink on their front pages.
Online entertainment and gaming sites were also shut down, web advertisements were taken off news sites, and black and white lettering and logos signaled a time of remembrance. Media outlets were reportedly told to give priority to stories about national mourning.
What are the world's disaster hotspots? Arthur Lerner-Lam, who we spoke with in last week's Seven Questions about global disasters, set out with a team from Columbia University and the World Bank to answer this in "Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis." They divided the world up into sub-national swathes of land and analyzed population and disaster data going back about thirty years for six disaster types: drought, flooding, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides. For reasons of data accuracy and availability, the results are relative rather than absolute likelihoods that disasters will occur in various corners of the globe.
The study focuses on more significantly populated areas amounting to about half of the world's land area. It approaches loss as potential damage to that which is "valuable but vulnerable includ[ing] people, infrastructure, and environmentally important land uses." And what's more, based on data from a Brussels-based research center, the study hints that disaster frequency is increasing.
The following map shows mortality risk by disaster type. This isn't a comprehensive summary but rather a summary of the top at-risk areas. Those purple blips in central China sure have a lot more meaning in the aftermath of recent events.
This second map shows risk in terms of total economic loss based on disaster type.
And finally, the third map normalizes potential economic loss based on country GDP. Notice the migration of the top at-risk areas away from the more developed regions.
Yesterday, two-and-a-half weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, junta leader Than Shwe finally descended from the remote mountain capital of Naypyitaw to tour cyclone-damaged areas outside of Yangon. He still has not visited the devastated Irrawaddy delta region. The Burmese government also agreed today to accept more aid from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations but is still blocking most aid from Western countries. French and American warships remain anchored off the coast of Irrawaddy, unable to bring food and supplies to shore.
One of the tragic ironies of Burma's glacial response to the disaster has been that they have made the Chinese Communist Party look really good by comparison. Say what you will about Hu Jintao, he was on the ground in Sichuan a few days after the earthquake and the Chinese government has broken sharply with past practice by asking for foreign aid.
Granted, "better than Burma" isn't exactly much of a compliment but the contrast is still striking.
Rumors are flying in China about why officials couldn't predict the quake when apparent natural signs were there. Technically, seismologists the world over say they can't accurately predict location and timing of earthquakes, but some in China see it differently.
Eyewitnesses say they observed changes in water levels in the days leading up to the quake, and abnormal animal behavior just prior. Media reports ten days ahead of the quake suggest "several thousand cubic meters of water disappeared within an hour in Hubei [350 miles east of the epicenter], but the [seismological] bureau there dismissed it." Quake mispredictions aren't without precedent; in the 1970s in Tangshan, the seismologists dispatched to check out reports of mysteriously falling well water levels were killed by the very quake they wrote off, according to the AP.
A few days prior to this week's Sichuan quake, a torrent of toads overran Mianzhu city where thousands of people were later killed in the severe tremors. The local forestry bureau did a TV interview before the disaster claiming it was normal breeding behavior which has people particularly angry after the fact. (Video above.) In Wuhan, 600 miles from the epicenter, a newspaper reported zebras banging their heads against the door, elephants swinging their tusks wildly, and peacocks screeching just before the quake hit. The idea that animals can sense certain things before humans is not new, though it relies primarily on observational evidence. It was studied some in the 1970s by the U.S. Geological Survey to no avail. Similar reports of strange animal behavior preceded the 2004 tsunami.
Some articles are now talking about the mandate of heaven, on which Chinese imperial dynasties traditionally drew their legitimacy. Natural disasters or mass disorder typically signaled the eclipse of that dynasty's mandate and the time for a new one to step in. Obviously the modern age is a different story, but it's been a rough year for China. As Wang Yiyan, Chinese studies professor at University of Sydney puts it, "The government knows many Chinese will see the quake as a sign that things are out of balance."
This is disturbing news. Chinese officials are now warning that earthquake-damaged dams in Sichuan province may be strained to the breaking point:
Two hydropower stations in Maoxian county, where 7,000 residents and tourists remain stranded near the epicenter, were "seriously damaged". Authorities warned that dams could burst. Landslides had blocked the flow of two rivers in northern Qingchuan county, forming a huge lake in a region where 1,000 have already died and 700 are buried, Xinhua said.
Luckily, the massive Three Gorges Dam appears to have been unaffected.
It's getting harder for the Burmese state to hide the truly profound level of its own dysfunction:
The Burmese generals were visible all right. State television showed them handing out boxes of the small amount of aid allowed in from neighbouring Thailand. Unwittingly, it also showed that the Burmese leadership had plastered their own names over the true origins of the food aid to fool their own people into believing that the emergency relief supplies had come from them.
You know things are bad when a military dictatorship can't even get its own propaganda right.
(Hat tip: Reason's Kerry Howley)
Invoking the United Nations' "Responsibility to Protect" clause, the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana joined French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in calling for the international community to aid the population of Burma, even without the consent of their government.
"We have to use all the means to help those people," Javier Solana said before an emergency meeting of EU ministers in Brussels. "The United Nations charter opens some avenues if things cannot be resolved in order to get the humanitarian aid to arrive."
China's veto pretty much precludes a Security Council resolution which is why some, like journalist (and top public intellectual) Anne Applebaum are calling for a new "coalition of the willing" to deliver aid without the junta's cooperation. Applebaum acknowledges that the phrase has been "tainted forever" by its association with the war in Iraq, but she isn't the only one drawing that parrallel. The Christian Science Monitor quoted one Burmese merchant who wondered why his country didn't meet the criteria for humanitarian intervention:
"I want to talk to Mr. George Bush. What are you doing? United Nations, what are you doing? We have no food, no water. This is the worst government in the world. Same as Saddam Hussein. Why you cannot help us?"
Since last week's deadly cyclone in Burma, the nation's ruling military junta has been reluctant to allow aid to enter the country. Since then, trickles of food, water and medicines have been allowed to enter the country, but international aid workers have not. Citing a government that failed to even warn its citizens of the impending disaster, international observers believe that the regime in Burma has neither the will nor the capacity to distribute aid fairly, that corrupt officials are profiting from aid packages, and that the situation created by these conditions threatens to outpace the humanitarian devastation of the 2004 tsunami.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner--the founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)--suggested that the international community and the UN are obligated to intervene in Burma, regardless of the wishes of the military junta, in accordance with the "Responsibility to Protect", or R2P, as outlined by the UN at the General Assembly in 2005. The concept asserts that the international community is obligated to intervene in cases where states fail to protect their populations from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
There are widely varying opinions (pdf) on the legality of the Responibility to Protect. Some argue that it violates the basic concept of sovereignty, while others like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, believe as Kouchner does, that the UN is abdicating its responsibility in Burma. Garreth Evans, of the International Crisis Group, offers a more nuanced interpretation in an editorial for The Guardian:
If it comes to be thought that R2P, and in particular the sharp military end of the doctrine, is capable of being invoked in anything other than a context of mass atrocity crimes, then such consensus as there is in favour of the new norm will simply evaporate in the global south. And that means that when the next case of genocide or ethnic cleansing comes along we will be back to the same old depressing arguments about the primacy of sovereignty that led us into the horrors of inaction in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s."
He admits that if the inaction and neglect of the Burmese government is widely interpreted as a crime against humanity, then there might be room for the principle's application.
But there is no disagreement that the people of Burma can't wait for these issues to be bandied about at the Security Council or across editorial pages. Frustrated nations have a choice to make: either they must defy the wishes of the Burmese junta and send aid workers or airlifts to the Irrawaddy Delta, or they must submit to the regime and send whatever they have in the hopes that it will reach those in need. Regardless, it is clear that moralizing and posturing on the issue is not going to influence many, either in Rangoon or at the UN.
It seems hard to imagine a scenario in which the massive earthquake that rocked China's western Sichuan Province at 2:28pm local time today has not killed tens of thousands -- possibly more. Beijing originally put the death toll at 61. Hours later, the figure was increased to "up to 8,500." With rescuers, including thousands of Chinese soldiers, still unable to reach the epicenter of the quake, one can only assume this figure is tragically optimistic.
Officials at the U.S. Geological Survey have said that the magnitude 7.9 quake was relatively shallow. Shallow earthquakes do more damage near their epicenters than ones which occur deeper in the Earth. Just over 30 years ago, in 1976, a similarly shallow quake, measuring magnitude 7.5, hit the northern Chinese city of Tangshan. It killed more than 250,000 people.
It's worth watching Beijing's response to the crisis, for a couple of reasons (in addition to any worst-case Olympic scenarios).The first will be to see how real recent transformations in Beijing's disaster response policies are, including a new network of emergency management offices and provisions which give local leaders more autonomy in times of crisis. So far, the speed with which Beijing has responded has been impressive. Can it be sustained and intensified?
The second will be to gauge Beijing's commitment to transparency with regard to the scale and scope of the quake's impact. So far, information seems to have flowed relatively freely to the Western media. As the scale of the disaster increases, and with it the death toll, in all likelihood revealing deficiencies in engineering and infrastructure, it will be interesting to see if these channels of communication remain as open.
The full extent extent of the damage caused by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province on Monday afternoon is just starting to become clear. It is estimated that about 9,000 people were killed. The quake was felt in Beijing and Shanghai, and in places as far reaching as Taipei, Hanoi and Bangkok.
In order to reassure people and to squelch false rumors, the Chinese government is using SMS text messaging (translated) to mobile phones as well as internet postings to inform people that the areas where they live are not in the seismic zone. Over a million such messages were sent in nearby Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guizhou Province.
The government plans to use text messaging not only for emergencies, but for various situations relating to the public interest. The plan is part of the government's new openness in information regulations which it says will promote "openness as principle, being closed off as the exception" in an effort to provide timely and accurate information to the public.
The hand of the government doesn't seem so far away when it's reaching you through a device clutched in yours.
Nearly a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, the first UN World Food Program and Red Cross planes were finally allowed to land in Yangon today. U.S. military planes carrying supplies are still waiting in Bangkok for permission to fly from the Burmese government.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. The total number of casualties is anywhere between 23,000 and 100,000 depending on estimates and over 1 million people may have lost their homes. As the arresting images in FP's photo essay "Burma Picks up the Pieces" show, rebuilding after this catastrophe would be a monumental task for any state. For one as repressive and paranoid as Burma, it may be impossible.
While it might seem unimaginable to find a reason for optimism in suffering of this scale, the Burmese people can only hope that the cyclone, and the government's inept handling of it, might be the final blow that brings this odious regime to an end.
The 130-mph winds and 12-foot-high waves of Cyclone Nargis have already left at least 22,500 dead and another 40,000 missing along Burma's Andaman coast and Irrawaddy river basin, but the worst may not be over. Caryl Stern, head of the U.S. fund for UNICEF, said of the days to come, "Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself."
Burma's paranoid, isolationistic junta has actually asked for international assistance in the face of this mounting disaster, but according to The Irrawaddy, a Burmese newsmagazine run out of Thailand, government cooperation with international relief groups is still questionable in practice.
As seen in this week's Tuesday Map(s), though, the biggest issue on the ground may simply be standing water -- miles and miles of standing water.
On April 15, the image shows clean-cut river tracks and a visible shoreline:
The May 5 image, however, is clearly a different story:
And this map, created by UNOSAT (the Operational Satellite Applications Program of the U.N. Institute for Training and Research), shows the flooding's impact on Burma's citizens along the Andaman coast:
As you can see, standing flood water (red-pink areas) has unfortunately closely followed the denser populations (red/orange dots) of this agricultural region. And that's why the cyclone's toll has been so astoundingly high.
The devastating cyclone that hit Burma this weekend, killing perhaps 22,500 people -- 40,000 more are still missing -- seems to have spared the country's new administrative capital, Naypyidaw. Deep in the heart of the country's interior and surrounded by mountainous jungle, the isolated new capital, only unveiled last year, suits the insular military junta just fine. But The Irrawaddy reports that civil servants and military officials, many of whom left family behind in Rangoon, are bucking orders from the junta to stay put. Instead, they've fled to look for lost family members in the cyclone's path:
We left our children in Rangoon, and we should be there with them now," the official said, adding that higher authorities have turned down all requests for leave until after the May 10 referendum.
Many of Burma's bureaucrats have homes in Rangoon, where they lived until the junta suddenly shifted the capital to Naypyidaw in November 2005. Telephone lines and Internet connections in Rangoon, which is still the country’s main commercial center, have been down since Friday.
Military personnel with relatives in the stricken area have also been returning to their homes without permission from their commanding officers.
Perhaps another sign that bungling relief efforts could weaken the junta's control?
Here's a clip of Susan Rice, one of Barack Obama's foreign-policy advisors, discussing the infamous 3 a.m. phone call ad:
Clinton hasn't had to answer the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning and yet she attacked Barack Obama for not being ready. They're both not ready to have that 3 a.m. phone call."
(Hat tip: The Caucus)
UPDATE: MSNBC sends along the full clip, so that you can see the context and judge for yourself.
In one of the biggest annual movements of humanity, about 200 million Chinese make roughly 2.2 billion trips over the Lunar New Year holiday. This year, Jack Frost made a guest appearance, causing massive travel delays, damaging key infrastructure, and disrupting coal shipments to power plants.
How does China's winter disaster stack up against Hurricane Katrina? Here's a look:
|Damage||$7.5 billion||$96 billion|
|Evacuees||1.7 million||1.1 million|
|Homes damaged or destroyed||Over 1 million||300,000|
|Official visits||PM Wen Jiabao to Guangzhou||Bush to New Orleans|
|Industries affected||coal||oil & gas|
|Power supply||17 of 31 provinces in brownouts||2.5 million without power|
|Troops Deployed||500,000 soldiers, 1.6 million paramilitary||50,000 National Guard Troops|
Photos: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images; ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Goma, a city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is what you might call a star-crossed place. It has endured decades of bloody civil war, played host to thousands of fugitive murderers who masterminded the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, and in 2002, a hot wall of lava from an erupting volcano flattened the downtown.
But now mansions are going up. The Chicago Tribune's intrepid foreign correspondent, Paul Salopek (who was detained for more than a month last year in Darfur for his reporting) just filed a fascinating piece about the city's recent transformation from hell on Earth to real estate boomtown. Where survival crops were once planted in traffic circles, he writes, tropical flowers now bloom. Land plots are going for $30,000 not far from the lake where bones of Rwandan genocide victims still wash ashore.
It seems that the town's near-destruction a few years ago by a nearby volcano has given it the chance to reinvent itself—or at least for the real-estate speculators to move in and recreate a city center at extortion prices. And yet the "startling rebirth of the town-that-just-won't-die," as Salopek calls it, is still just one eruption away from more ruin.
And then there's the rest of the neighborhood: The surrounding countryside is still rife with rebels battling with government forces, and an estimated 800,000 refugees have been displaced recently due to the fighting. Not the most stable real estate environment for investment, perhaps, but admirable all the same that people can shake it all off and rebuild.
As mentioned in this morning's Brief, the town of Tuusula, Finland was the tragic site of school shootings Wednesday when an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed seven classmates and the principal of his school. Having been an exchange student in Finland many moons ago, I can imagine this coming as a huge shock to the Finns, whose violent crime rates are exceedingly low.
That said, Finland does have a robust gun culture. Any adult can own a handgun as long as it's registered with a shooting club. And just from my experience there, the gun culture is largely centered around hunting (reindeer meat*, anyone?) and target shooting. I personally knew more people who owned guns over there than I do in the United States, which makes me think that gun ownership is more concentrated here. Anyhow, Finland ranks third in the world in gun ownership, with 56 firearms per 100 people, compared to a whopping 90 in the United States and 61 in Yemen, which ranks second. That's according to this fantastic graphic by the Washington Post, which was tucked away on page A14 in today's paper:
Other surprises from this chart? Iraq has "only" 39 firearms per 100 people.
*UPDATE: Finnish reader Timo Riitamaa writes in—
People don't shoot reindeer, they shoot moose. Moose are wild animals.
Reindeers, while living freely in herds, are earmarked by their owners and killed by a butcher.
During the past week, at least 640,000 people in California have fled their homes, 14 people have died, more than 2,760 buildings have been destroyed, and many millions of dollars worth of damage has been inflicted. The culprit is, of course, the massive wildfire that has spread across roughly 700 square miles (181,300 hectares) of California, all the way from Santa Barbara down to the Mexican border. Authorities suspect that arsonists were to blame for starting at least two of the fires that have raged out of control, which have been fanned by Santa Anas—the region's strong, dry seasonal winds. And after a week, there are still serious risks of further blowouts in some areas of the state.
But it's not just California that faces threats from fierce and incredibly damaging wildfires. Every year, countries as diverse as Australia, Indonesia, and Russia experience their own deadly, forest-fire outbreaks, and are at the mercy of forces ranging from global warming to arsonists. Some of these wildfires even make California's 181,300 burning hectares look mild. In 2003, for instance, over 23 million hectares of Siberia's forests went up in flames. This week's FP List, "The World's Worst Forest Fires," looks at some of the countries that are most at risk for wildfires and previews some of the dangers that lie ahead. It's a pretty gloomy outlook, unfortunately. Check it out.
I've categorized this blog post where it belongs: Disasters.
A steam roller destroys bottles of alcohol, during a ceremony in Jakarta, 04 October 2007. Jakarta authorities destroyed some 35,065 bottles of alcohol seized by police in the capital from illegal alcohol vendors, during [the] Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, when practicing devotees abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and any sexual activity from dawn to dusk.
More photos, including the giant beer vacuum, after the BREAK
How's the surge going? The latest figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees tell us that an average of 60,000 Iraqis a month are fleeing their homes in fear of their lives, an increase of 10,000 since the buildup of U.S. troops began in January. And who could blame them? We've already highlighted the recent BBC/ABC/NHK poll here on Passport, which revealed that as many as 70 percent of Iraqis feel less secure since the surge started.
What's worse, escaping the violence has just gotten a lot harder. Until this Monday, neighboring Syria had allowed in any Iraqi without a visa for a six month period. Now, new visa regulations imposed by the Syrian government have made it so that every Iraqi—with the exception of academics and businessmen (and perhaps the odd insurgent)—must apply for a visa at the embassy in Baghdad's al-Mansour district, an area prone to sectarian violence. The result? According to a UNHCR spokesman:
For the first time in months, if not years, UNHCR field workers visiting the Syrian-Iraq border yesterday found the crossing point virtually empty.
We shouldn't be quick to point fingers at Syria. The estimated 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living there have cost the Syrian government some $1 billion a year and have put undue strain on the country's health, education, and housing services. An on-the-ground Brookings report revealed that in 2006, the state had to foot the bill for a 35 percent increase in subsidized bread as well as 30,000 new Iraqi students flooding the school systems. Syrian citizens blame the refugees for the recent spike in unemployment, cost of basic goods, and high rents in Damascus neighborhoods (in some places, rental prices have doubled or even tripled since the outbreak of the war). But despite UNHCR's calls for international assistance, Syria has mostly been left to deal with the situation alone. U.N. officials have desperately been advocating the inclusion of a "humanitarian visa"—which would ensure that those fleeing persecution won't be turned away because they don't meet regular visa requirements—but it's about time someone else lent a helping hand.
At least the refugees now have Angelina Jolie on their side. The actress visited refugees on the Iraq-Syria border at the end of August and demanded increased international support:
It is absolutely essential that the ongoing debate about Iraq's future includes plans for addressing the enormous humanitarian consequences these people face.
Maybe she can get someone to pay attention.
Where exactly did President Bush think he was visiting yesterday during his trip to the Gulf Coast?
[T]he taxpayers and people from all around the country have got to understand the people of this part of the world really do appreciate the fact that the American citizens are supportive of the recovery effort."
"I come telling the folks in this part of the world that we still understand there's problems and we're still engaged."
"We care deeply about the folks in this part of the world."
Doesn't it sound as if he's talking about people in another country? Tsunami survivors perhaps, or Iraqi refugees? But then, he's referred to the Gulf Coast as "this part of the world" at least a dozen times since Katrina. It's a rhetorical crutch, obviously, but also one easily avoided given the immense frustration most Gulf Coasters feel at being seemingly forgotten by the powers that be.
(Hat tip: David Kurtz)
Many people are probably wondering today why, two years after Katrina, New Orleans remains something a little less than a shining city on a hill. The news on the Big Easy's recovery is not all bad, but it's certainly disappointing for those of us who were hoping the city would bounce back quickly from tragedy. Only the old parts of New Orleans, which were built on the higher ground and were never destroyed, seem to be thriving—and many people have fled for the suburbs. In a fascinating New York Times Sunday Magazine article about the wild world of catastrophic insurance, Michael Lewis goes a long way toward explaining what is going wrong:
Louisiana cannot generate and preserve wealth without insurance, and it cannot obtain insurance except at the market price. But that price remains a mystery. Billions of dollars in insurance settlements — received by local businesses and homeowners as payouts on their pre-Katrina policies — bloat New Orleans banks and brokerage houses. The money isn't moving because the people are paralyzed. It's as if they have been forced to shoot craps without knowing the odds. Businesses are finding it harder than ever to buy insurance, and homeowners are getting letters from Allstate, State Farm and the others telling them that their long relationship must now come to an end. "I've been in the business 45 years," says a New Orleans insurance broker named Happy Crusel, "and I've never seen anything remotely like this." An entire city is now being reshaped by an invisible force: the price of catastrophic risk. But it's the wrong price.
Lewis's article is basically a long profile of John Seo, a math whiz who has pioneered "esoteric financial options"—complex financial products that other people couldn't figure out how to price properly. Seo's insights on how to spread the risk from catastrophic events such as Katrina are hugely important in an age of worsening storms. But they could have unexpected pernicious consequences.
Consider the undiminished risk of flooding in New Orleans, wildfires in Malibu, or hurricanes along the Florida coast. I know; everybody wants to be near water. But the truth is, people shouldn't be building their homes in flood plains, in areas that are especially prone to severe wildfires and mudslides, or on ecologically fragile barrier islands—and insurers shouldn't be encouraged to sell policies to people building new homes in such places. (I'm not calling for, say, the wholesale evacuation of Singapore.) It is politically costly for politicians to resist massive bailouts after events like Hurricane Andrew; just look at what happened to Bush I in the 1992 election. Knowing this reality, insurance companies might take risks that they otherwise wouldn't. We need to ensure that Seo's innovations, for all the good they might do, don't magnify this problem.
Zitiste may be a long way from South Philly, but this beleaguered Serbian village is hoping for a morale boost from the Italian Stallion himself. City officials unveiled a three-meter bronze statue of Rocky Balboa by sculptor Bojan Marceta over the weekend in the town square. Thirty-five miles north of Belgrade, Zitiste has fallen victim to flooding and landslides in recent years, gaining a reputation for misfortune and catastrophe. Officials hope that Rocky's underdog story will help the town's image:
For years, only negative reports on farm disease, monstrous murders, floods and landslides have been coming from our village," said Mayor Zoran Babic.
"This is the chance to give a better, more positive image to Zitiste."
No word yet on whether Vladimir Putin's government—always a factor in Serbian politics—will insist on equal representation for Ivan Drago.
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